Dr Donald B Smith, professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary, is one of Canada’s most renowned historians, having written no less than seven books on aboriginal Canada, His latest book, Seen but Not Seen explores the history of Indigenous marginalization and why non-Indigenous Canadians failed to recognize Indigenous societies and cultures as worthy of respect.
With that as background, Dr. Smith has come to the defense of Egerton Ryerson, even as the university prepares to expunge his name form the institution. Ryerson’s statue has already been torn down.
In the current edition of the Journal of the Ontario Historical Society Smith argues that Ryerson was a friend of the Credit Mississauga first nations. As a young missionary, he learned basic Ojibwe, living with the Mississauga’s for a year. He became a lifelong friend of the future Mississauga Chief, Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers. AKA Peter Jones) who was born in Hamilton.
In April 1827 he wrote, “I commenced my labours among this new made people. I was at that time a perfect stranger to Indians, and but little acquainted with their customs; but the affectionate manner in which they received me… removed all the strangeness of national feeling, enabled me to embrace them as brethren, and love them as mine own people.”
Ryerson lived with First Nations, learned language
Smith says Ryerson, the first Methodist Church worker to live with the Credit Mississauga, joined them in a fight to secure a title deed to their reserve at the mouth of the Credit River, He intervened with the legislature to help secure their salmon fishing rights. He set up a school on the reserve—not a residential school– in which the children were taught in Ojibwe and English. The Mississauga even gave Ryerson an aboriginal name. During an 1836/37 trip to England Ryerson lobbied the Colonial Office for protection of the Anishinaabeg land base in Upper Canada. He sponsored the entry of an aboriginal student to Upper Canada College. One Ojibwe scholar, of more than a dozen who attended the Methodist college founded by Ryerson, named his son after him.
Ryerson envisioned voluntary education programs for aboriginals
Smith argues that the report that supposedly makes Ryerson “the author of the residential school system,” was 3,000-word letter written at the request of the government who wanted a report on indigenous schooling. In it, Ryerson argued for farming schools operated by indigenous people themselves as administrators. At this time farming was the economic engine of Ontario. Smith acknowledges that Ryerson saw the schools operating under the aegis of the church, “first and foremost a system of education must be Christian…” Smith also acknowledges that there were paternalistic overtones to Ryerson’s writing, but that was the language of the times. But Smith says Ryerson’s hope was for the economic self-sufficiency of the indigenous people he had lived with. Attendance at the agricultural school he envisioned would be not only voluntary, but was enthusiastically encouraged by his friend the Mississauga Chief.
Colonial attitudes acknowledged
With all of this as background Smith does not whitewash Ryerson, acknowledging that Ryerson was a product of his colonial times, but perhaps, when it comes to indigenous relations, one of the most enlightened in his attitudes. Smith concludes, “this essay is a plea for a full in-depth scholarly study” of Ryerson. “We know the interpretation of historical events can be multiple and conflicting and that no historical interpretation can be final in any respect. My hope is that young scholars, both indigenous and non-indigenous will advance this important discussion in future work.”
same cancel-culture errors being made with Henry Dundas
When one looks at Smith’s interpretation of Ryerson, one is also forced to consider the treatment of Henry Dundas—a lifelong advocate of abolition of slavery, who, irrationally, has somehow become portrayed as a man who extended slavery for decades against considerable scholarly evidence to the contrary. Surely in today’s relentless search for objects of condemnation, we can find less nuanced villains than these two figures. The campaigns against Ryerson and Dundas are anti-intellectual in tone, and further examples of the perils of mindless cancel culture. Further reading on Henry Dundas.